İstanbul is one of the most historical and beautiful cities in the world. There are so many nice things to see in addition to so many nice things to do. One or two days in İstanbul would never be enough in İstanbul but it is a good start.
Let’s say you are going to İstanbul with a cruise ship and you have only one day in İstanbul for a shore excursion. What should you do if you have only one day for city sightseeing or a one-day tour in İstanbul? You can join an organized tour or hire a private tour guide for a private tour of the city for your limited time. This will save you a lot of time and your private tourist guide will be able to tailor the program according to your pacing and interests.
Here is the list of highlights in İstanbul if you are in there just for one day:
- Ancient Hippodrome
- Blue Mosque – Sultan Ahmet Mosque)
- Hagia Sophia – Ayasofya – St. Sophia Church
- Topkapi Palace Museum – Topkapı Sarayı
- Grand Bazaar – Covered Bazaar – Kapalı Çarşı
The original Hippodrome was built in 203 AD by the Roman Emperor, Septimus Severus, when he rebuilt Byzantium. Constantine the Great reconstructed, enlarged, and adorned it with beautiful works brought from different parts of the Roman Empire when he chose Byzantium as his new capital.
Although there is not much left of the original building except the Egyptian Obelisk, Serpentine, and Constantine Columns, according to the excavations carried out, the Hippodrome was 117 m / 384 ft wide and 480 m / 1575 ft long with a capacity of 100,000 spectators. It is said that one quarter of the population could fit into the Hippodrome at one time.
During the Byzantine period, the Hagia Sophia was the religious center, a place that belonged to God; the palace belonged to the emperor; and the Hippodrome was the civil center for the people.
Chariots drawn by 2 or 4 horses raced here, representing the four factions among the people. Each faction was represented by a color. Later on these four colors were united as two colors, the Blues and the Greens. The Blues were the upper and middle classes, orthodox in religion and conservative in politics. The Greens were the lower class and radical both in religion and politics. One of these political divisions ended with a revolt that caused the deaths of 30,000 people. This revolt was named after the people’s cries of “nika” which means “win” and this Nika Revolt took place in 531 AD.
The central axis of the Hippodrome was called “spina”, and the races took place around it. The races used to start by the order of the emperor and the contestants had to complete seven laps around the spina. The winner was awarded a wreath and gold by the emperor.
The Hippodrome was destroyed and plundered in 1204 by the Crusaders. During the Turkish period it lost its popularity, especially with the construction of the Blue Mosque. The ancient Hippodrome changed its name and became Atmeydanı (Horse Square), a place where Ottomans trained their horses. The only three remaining monuments from the original building are the Egyptian Obelisk, the Serpentine Column and the Constantine Column.
The Egyptian Obelisk (Dikilitaş)
Dikilitaş was originally one of the two obelisks which were erected in the name of Thutmose III in front of Amon-Ra Temple in Karnak in the 15C BC. It is a monolith made of granite and the words on it are in Egyptian hieroglyphs praising Thutmose III. The original piece was longer than today’s measurement of 19.60 m / 64.30 ft which is thought to be two thirds of the original. It was broken either during shipment or intentionally to make it lighter to transport. The Roman governor of Alexandria sent it to Theodosius I in 390 AD. The obelisk is situated on a Byzantine marble base with bas-reliefs that give some details about the emperor from the Kathisma and the races of the time. The Emperor Theodosius I, depicted on four sides of the obelisk, is watching the erection of it, watching a chariot race, receiving homage from slaves, and preparing a wreath for the winner of the race.
The Serpentine Column (Burma Sütun)
After defeating the Persians at the battles of Salamis (480 BC) and Plataea (479 BC), the 31 Greek cities, by melting all the spoils that they obtained, made a huge bronze incense burner with three entwined serpents to be erected in front of the Apollo Temple in Delphi. Originally it was 8 m / 26.3 ft high, but today it is only 5.30 m / 17.4 ft. This column was brought here from Delphi by Constantine I in 4C AD. According to records, it stood in its place until the 16C. It is not known what happened to the serpent heads after the 16C.
The Constantine Column (Örme Sütun)
Unlike the Egyptian Obelisk, this is not a monolith but a column built of stones. Who erected it and when it was built are not known. According to the inscriptions, it was renovated and restored to have a more beautiful appearance by Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus and his son Romanus II in the 10C AD. The original column would have been from the 4C or 5C AD.
It is 32 m / 105 ft high and after three steps comes the marble base at the bottom. It is also thought that all the surfaces of the column were covered with bronze relief pieces that probably were plundered during the 4th Crusade in 1204. Today it is possible to find some of these pieces used in the decoration of St. Mark’s Square in Venice.
Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Mosque)
Built by Sultan Ahmet I as a part of a large complex, among the Turkish people it is called Sultan Ahmet Mosque. However, visitors fascinated with the beautiful blue tiles always remember it as the Blue Mosque. The complex consisted of a mosque, tombs, fountains, a health center, kitchens, shops, a bath, rooms, houses and storehouses.
A 19-year-old Sultan started digging ceremoniously in the presence of high officials until he was tired. Thus began the construction in 1609 that continued until it was finished in 1616. An interesting fact about Sultan Ahmet is that he ascended to the throne at the age of 14 as the 14th ruler and died only 14 years later. Being close to the Topkapı Palace, Sultan Ahmet Mosque was regarded as the Supreme Imperial Mosque in İstanbul. Even at the times when the palace was left and the sultan moved to the Dolmabahçe Palace, Sultan Ahmet Mosque shared this honor with the Süleymaniye.
The architect was one of the apprentices of Sinan, Sedefkar Mehmet Ağa. He designed one of the last examples of the classical period’s architectural style. The mosque is situated in a wide courtyard that has five gates. There is an inner courtyard next to the mosque with three entrances. The inner courtyard is surrounded by porticos consisting of 26 columns and 30 domes. The Şadırvan (ablutional fountain) in the middle is symbolic, because the actual ones are outside on the walls of the inner courtyard. There are three entrances to the main building, one from the inner courtyard and one from each side of the building. There are four minarets at the corners of the mosque having three Şerefes each. The two minarets at the far corners of the courtyard have two Şerefes each. There are six minarets in all, each of which is fluted.
The interior of the mosque is a square with a width of 51.65 m / 170 ft and a length of 53.40 m / 175 ft covered by a dome. The main dome rests on four semi-arches and four pendentives. The diameter of the dome is 22.40 m / 73.5 ft and the height is 43 m / 141 ft. The four piers carrying the dome are called elephant legs as each has a diameter of 5 m / 16.4 ft. There are 260 windows that no longer have the original stained glass. The walls all along the galleries are covered with 21 thousand 17C İznik tiles having many flower motifs in a dominant blue color.
Sound & Light Show
On summer evenings, generally beginning at 09:00 P.M., a sound and light show, which is worth seeing, is presented between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. The languages of the show, Turkish, English, French and German, alternate daily.
Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya)
The Hagia Sophia was probably the largest building on the world’s surface, barring the Egyptian Pyramids, or the Great Wall of China. For many centuries it was the largest church, and today, comparing domes, it is the fourth largest in the world after St. Paul’s in London, St. Peter’s in Rome and the Duomo in Florence. The great Ottoman architect Sinan, in his autobiography, says that he devoted his lifetime in the attempt to surpass its technical achievements.
It was dedicated to the Hagia Sophia that means the Divine Wisdom, an attribute of Christ.
Today’s Hagia Sophia is the third building built in the same place. The first one was a basilica with a wooden roof and was built in 390 AD. This original church Megale Ecclesia (Great Church) was burned down in a rumpus in 404. Theodosius replaced it with a massive basilica that was burned down in the Nika Revolt against Justinian in 532. Justinian began rebuilding the Hagia Sophia in the same year. The architects were two Anatolian geniuses, Anthemius of Tralles, an engineer and a mathematician and Isidorus of Miletus, an architect. They started collecting materials from all over the empire. In the construction ten thousand workers worked under the supervision of one hundred master builders.
Justinian reopened it in 537, entering the Hagia Sophia with the words “Solomon, I have surpassed you!”
Because the building is on a fault line in an earthquake zone and the city passed through many riots and fires, the Hagia Sophia was destroyed and underwent restorations several times.
Throughout Byzantine history, the Hagia Sophia played an important role as emperors were crowned and various victories were celebrated in this remarkable building. The Hagia Sophia even gave refuge to criminals.
Another major event during the Byzantine period was the removal of all religious images from the church in the iconoclastic period. During the Fourth Crusade in 1204, the church was pillaged and some disgusting events took place in the Hagia Sophia.
After conquering Constantinople in 1453, Sultan Mehmet immediately went to the Hagia Sophia and ordered that it be converted into a mosque. This was done by adding Islamic elements, such as minarets, the mihrab, and the minber all of which were appropriately positioned to face toward Mecca, 10 degrees south of the main axis of the building.
The architect Sinan was also assigned to make some restorations and add Islamic elements to the building. Buttresses were added in the Ottoman period. Two huge marble jars were brought from Pergamum in the 16C and probably used to keep oil for candles. The eight round wooden plaques at gallery level are fine examples for Islamic calligraphy. The names painted on these plaques are Allah, Prophet Mohammed, the first four Caliphs Ebubekir, Ömer, Osman and Ali, and the two grandsons of Mohammed, Hasan and Hüseyin.
In time Hagia Sophia became a complex consisting of tombs, a fountain, libraries, etc. It has been thought that when Turks converted the church into a mosque, all the pictures were covered. That is not correct. According to the narration of travelers, some pictures were still standing but the figures’ faces were covered.
Hagia Sophia was used as a church for 916 years and as a mosque for 481 years. In 1934, by the order of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, it was made a museum and has since been open to visitors.
The Hagia Sophia has a classical basilica plan and the main ground plan of the building is a rectangle, 70 m / 230 ft in width and 75 m / 246 ft in length. The central space of the Hagia Sophia is divided on both sides from the side aisles by four big piers and 107 columns (40 downstairs, 67 upstairs) between them. The space is covered with a huge dome which is 55.60 m / 182 ft high. The dome, due to earthquakes and restorations, is slightly elliptical with a diameter of 31.20 m / 102 ft on one axis and 32.80 m / 107.60 ft on the other.
Most of the mosaics are from the times after the iconoclastic period. In the inner narthex above the main entrance, also called the Imperial Gate, there is a 10C mosaic depicting Jesus as the omnipotent ruler, seated upon a jeweled throne, dressed as an emperor, and making a gesture of blessing with his right hand. In his left hand he is holding a book inscribed with these words: “Peace unto you; I am the light of the world.” On both sides of Jesus Christ are two medallions, the Virgin Mary on the left and an angel with a staff on the right. Emperor Leo VI is depicted kneeling in front of Jesus.
On the pendentives are depicted winged angels with covered faces. The ones in the west pendentives are imitations in paint from Fossati’s restoration. Above the main apse is the mosaic depicting the Virgin Mary with the Infant Jesus. She is sitting on a bench with her feet resting on a stool. Her right hand is on her son’s shoulder and her left upon his knee. Jesus is raising his right hand in blessing and holding a scroll in his left hand.
In the galleries is the 13C mosaic panel of the Deesis scene: Jesus as the omnipotent ruler flanked by the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist who are shown interceding with him on behalf of mankind.
At the far end of the last bay in the south gallery is a mosaic showing Christ enthroned with his right hand in the gesture of benediction and the book of Gospels in his left hand. On the left is the figure of the 11C Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX Monomachus offering a moneybag and Empress Zoë holding a scroll on the right. The emperor’s face in the mosaic was changed each time Zoë changed her husband. Constantine IX was Zoë’s third husband.
To the right of the mosaic of Zoë there is a 12C mosaic showing the Virgin Mary with the Infant Jesus flanked by Emperor John II Comnenus offering a bag of gold and red-haired Empress Eirene holding a scroll. At the extension of the mosaic on the sidewall is the figure of Prince Alexius.
At the end of the inner narthex, before going out to the courtyard (today’s exit) stands the 10C beautiful mosaic: The Virgin Mary with the Infant Jesus in her lap, on one side Emperor Constantine offering a small model of the city as he is accepted as the founder, on the other side Emperor Justinian offering the model of the Hagia Sophia as the emperor who had it built.
Topkapı Palace Museum (Topkapı Sarayı Müzesi)
The Topkapı Sarayı was the Ottomans’ second palace in İstanbul. The construction of the Topkapı Palace, including the walls, was completed between 1459 and 1478. As different sultans ascended to the throne, each added a new part to the palace. These now represent for us the different architectural tastes and styles of four centuries. The changes were made for reasons of practicality, to commemorate victorious campaigns, or to repair damage caused by earthquakes and fire.
The Topkapı Palace was never static but was always in the process of organic development, influenced by the times. The first of these influences was the parallelism between the palace and the empire. As the empire became larger, the palace was likewise enlarged. The second is that as the sultans felt insecure and withdrew themselves behind walls and removed themselves from nature, there was an attempt to bring nature inside the walls in the form of miniatures, tiles and suchlike. If late Ottoman period palaces are excluded, only the Topkapı Palace survived from the glory days of the great Ottoman Empire, which implies that palaces for the Ottomans were something different than the ones we know today. There is a kind of humble simplicity and practicality in the Ottoman palaces. The Topkapı Sarayı was a city-palace with a population of approximately 4,000 people. It covers an area of 70 hectares / 173 acres. It housed all the Ottoman sultans from Sultan Mehmet II to Abdülmecit, for nearly 400 years and 25 Sultans. In 1924 it was made into a museum.
The palace was mainly divided into two sections, Birun and Enderun. There are four consecutive courtyards of the palace; the first two are Birun, the outer palace, and the second two are Enderun, the inner palace, with the Harem.
The first courtyard that was open to the public was entered through the Bab-ı Humayun (Imperial Gate). This was the service area of the palace consisting of a hospital (with a capacity of 120 beds), a bakery, an arsenal, the mint, storage places for various things and some dormitories. This courtyard acted something like a city center.
Topkapı Palace, as well as being the imperial residence of the Sultan, his court and Harem, was also the seat of government for the Ottoman Empire, Divan. The second courtyard, also called Divan Meydanı (Divan Square), which started after the Bab-üs Selam (Gate of Salutation), was the seat of the Divan (Imperial Council Hall) and open to anyone who had business with the Divan. This was the administration center. The Divan met four times a week. In the earlier years the sultan would be present at these council meetings, but later on, he would sit behind a latticed grille placed in the wall and listen to the proceedings from there. The Council never knew whether or not the sultan was actually present and listening to them unless he decided to speak. The Divan consisted of two rooms, the Office of the Grand Vizier and the Public Records Office, or Tower of Justice.
In addition to the Divan there were also the privy stables and kitchens. The kitchens consist of a series of ten large rooms with domes and dome-like chimneys. In these kitchens in those times they cooked for about 4,000 people. The kitchens were used separately for different people, because different dishes for different classes had to be prepared.
In the kitchens today, a collection of Chinese Porcelain which are considered the third most valuable in the world, are on display, together with authentic kitchen utensils and Turkish and Japanese Porcelain.
Just before entering the third courtyard, in front of the third gate, the Bab-üs Saade (Gate of Felicity) or the Akağalar (White Eunuchs) Gate is the place where the golden throne was placed for all kinds of occasions, such as coronation ceremonies and religious holidays. Payment of the Yeniçeri salaries took place there also, as well as the funerals of sultans or handing over of the sancak, the standard or the flag of the Prophet Mohammed by the sultan.
The Enderun, inner palace, started at the Bab-üs Saade and was surrounded by the quarters of the inner palace boys who were in service to the sultan and the palace. The first building after entering into the third courtyard is Arz Odası, the Audience Hall. Many important ceremonies also took place there. Foreign ambassadors and results of Divan meetings were presented to the sultan in this chamber.
In the middle of the courtyard is the library of Sultan Ahmet III. On the right is a section where sultans’ costumes are shown. Next to this is the treasury section where many precious objects are displayed. Among these the Kaşıkçı Diamond (the Spoonmaker’s Diamond) and the Topkapı Hançeri (the Topkapı Dagger) are the most precious. The Kaşıkçı Diamond is 86 carats, “drop-shaped”, faceted and surrounded by 49 large diamonds. The Topkapı Dagger, a beautiful dagger ornamented with valuable emerald pieces was to be sent to Nadir Shah of Iran as a present, but when it was on the way it was heard that Nadir had been assassinated and so it was taken back to the palace treasury.
From the right-hand corner to the left in this courtyard are the sections of miniatures, calligraphy, portraits of sultans, clocks and holy relics of Islam. The holy relics are personal belongings of the Prophet Mohammed (a mantle, sword, seal, tooth, beard and footprints) and Caliphs, Koran scripts, religious books and framed inscriptions. Relics including a hand, arm and skull bones belonging to John the Baptist are also on display in this section.
In the fourth courtyard there are pavilions facing the Marmara Sea and others facing the Golden Horn. Among them are the Baghdad Pavilion and the Revan Pavilions built by Sultan Murat IV in the 17C to commemorate his victories in these two cities of Iran.
The concept of the Harem has provoked much speculation. Curiosity about the unknown and inaccessible inspired highly imaginative literature among the people of the western world.
The word Harem which in Arabic means “forbidden” refers to the private sector of a Moslem household in which women live and work; the term is also used for women dwelling there. In traditional Moslem society the privacy of the household was universally observed and respectable women did not socialize with men to whom they were not married or related. Because the establishment of a formal Harem was an expense beyond the means of the poor, the practice was limited to elite groups, usually in urban settings. Since Islamic law allowed Moslems to have a maximum of four wives, in a Harem there would be up to four wives and numerous concubines and servants. Having a harem, in general, was traditionally a mark of wealth and power. Though the women of the harems might never leave its confines, their influence was frequently of key importance to political and economic affairs of the household, with each woman seeking to promote the interests of her own children. The most famous harems were those of the sultans. The Harems of the Ottoman Turkish rulers were elaborate structures concealed behind palace walls, in which lived hundreds of women who were married to, related to, or owned by the head of the household.
The idea of the Harem came to the Ottoman sultans from the Byzantines. Turks did not have Harems before coming to Anatolia. After the arrival of Turks in İstanbul, sultans built the Topkapı Palace step by step. Parallel to it, a harem was also begun. Eventually it became a big complex consisting of a few hundred rooms. The harem was not a prison full of women kept for the sultan’s pleasure. It was his family quarters. This was the place where the dynasty lived. Security in the harem was provided by black eunuchs. Valide Sultan (Queen Mother) was the head of the harem. She had enormous influence on everything that took place there and frequently on her son too. Young and beautiful girls of the harem were either purchased by the palace or presented to the Sultan as gifts from dignitaries or the sultan’s family. When these girls entered the Harem, they were thoroughly assessed.
Among the girls there were mainly four different classes: Odalık (Servant), Gedikli (Sultan’s personal servants; there were only twelve of them), İkbal or Gözde (those were Favorites who are said to have had affairs with the Sultan), Kadın or Haseki Sultan (wives giving children to the Sultan). When the Haseki Sultan’s son ascended to the throne, she was promoted to Valide Sultan. She was the most important woman. After her, in order of importance came the Sultan’s daughters. Then came the first four wives of the sultan who gave birth to children. Their degree of importance was in the order in which their sons were born.
They had conjugal rights and if the Sultan did not sleep with them on two consecutive Friday nights, they could consider themselves divorced. They had their own apartments. The Favorites also had their own apartments. But others slept in dormitories.
Girls were trained according to their talents in playing a musical instrument, singing, dancing, writing, embroidery and sewing. Many parents longed for their daughters to be chosen for the Harem. Women could visit their families or just go for drives in covered carriages from which they could see out behind the veils and curtained windows. They could also organize parties up on the Bosphorus or along the Golden Horn.
The Chief Black Eunuch had the biggest responsibility and was the only one who knew everything. Eunuchs, owing to different methods used for castration, were checked regularly by doctors to make sure they remained eunuchs.
When a Sultan died, the new sultan would bring his new harem which meant that the former harem was dispersed. Some were sent to the old palace, some stayed as teachers, or some older ones were pensioned off.
Life at the Court
The focal point of the court was the sultan, of course. The Sultan’s daily life was very simple. In addition to regular daily activities, in order to broaden their perspectives, sultans brought scholars, poets, artists and historians to the palace. Most of the sultans in the Ottoman Empire encouraged these skills and developed many skills themselves. They commissioned new works, manuscripts and bindings, were ardent readers, competent calligraphers, poets, archers, riders, javelin players, hunters, composers, etc. In daily life at the palace, silence was dominant. The hundreds of people in the palace tried not to meet the sultan unless necessary. In attempting to keep their voices down, it was even said that people of the court sometimes developed a system of body language among themselves.
Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı)
During the Byzantine period the area of the Grand Bazaar was a trade center. After the Turks came to İstanbul, two bedestens formed the essence of today’s Grand Bazaar. They were built by Sultan Mehmet II between 1455-1461 in an attempt to enrich the economic life in the city. Later on, as people needed more places for their trade, they also added parts outside these bedestens. In time the Grand Bazaar was formed.
Throughout the Ottoman period, the bazaar underwent earthquakes and fires and was restored several times. Today, shops selling the same kind of merchandise tend to be congregated together on their own streets or hans, as this was originally the Ottoman system. In addition to two bedestens there are also 13 hans in the Grand Bazaar.With 18 entrances and more than four thousand shops, it is one of the greatest bazaars in the World. The atmosphere of the Grand Bazaar is very interesting for tourists and has consequently become a very popular place for foreign visitors.